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Master Gardener Journal  


M E E T   T H E   N A T I V E S



Sacred Datura:
Moonlight Magic


by Copper Bittner,
Master Gardener


BOTANICAL NAME:
Datura innoxia or Datura wrightii

COMMON NAMES:
Sacred datura , Jimson weed, thorn apple, Indian apple, angel's trumpet, toloache, and tolguacha.

Sacred datura is a native perennial that can be incorporated into a drought-tolerant landscape with great effect. It is found in all four deserts of the Southwest, g rowing in sandy flats, arroyos, and plains from sea level to approximately 2,500 feet. It is often seen along roadsides and in disturbed areas.

This stout-branched rambling perennial has ovate leaves that are medium-green on top and gray-green on the underside. Leaves have smooth margins, are alternately arranged, and can be up to 6 inches long. They are covered by tiny hairs, and upon close inspection appear almost velvety. Individual plants often grow 3-5 feet high and can sprawl 6-8 feet. Sacred datura produces dozens of fragrant white trumpet-shaped flowers that are sometimes tinged with purple or lavender around the margins. They are large, sometimes 6-8 inches in diameter, and have five slender spurs at their margins. Flowers appear in the early evening from March through November, and they close by noon of the following day. Seedpods are globeshaped and spiny. When ripe, they split open to release semicircular, flattened, yellow-brown seeds.

This plant dies back to the ground during winter freezes, and then re-sprouts again when the weather warms. Although I have never propagated it, I encourage interested gardeners to try growing it from seed. Scarify the seeds and plant several in a one-gallon pot in the spring. Choose the healthiest seedling if more than one sprouts. Allow it to grow until the roots have spread throughout the pot, and then transplant into the garden. Water intermittently until established during the first year. The following year, it should be able to make it on native rainfall. You may encourage growth with supplemental irrigation, but from my experience too much water can give you a plant that literally takes over. The one in my yard is about 6 feet deep, 12 feet wide, and 5 feet high. I've had to prune it several times to keep it in this proportion.

Sacred datura is a night-bloomer, and is pollinated by sphinx or hawk moths. These evening visitors, seen feeding on the nectar of newly opened flowers, are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds because of the soft "whirring" or "buzzing" sound they produce as they feed. They have a long proboscis that unfurls to reach into the nectary at the base of the bloom, and as they feed they inadvertently pollinate the flowers they visit. Consider planting datura near a patio, where the fragrance and moth activity can be enjoyed on summer evenings.

The larva of the sphinx moth is also known as the tomato hornworm-the large green caterpillar you may have seen devouring your tomatoes. The tomato hornworm is easily controlled by hand picking. You needn't to worry about attracting them if you plant datura, as they feed on tomatoes, datura, and other plants with equal enthusiasm. Native moth species prefer datura.

WARNING: Sacred datura, a member of the potato (Solanaceae) family (also called the deadly nightshade family) is poisonous. Do not ingest any portion of this plant. In practicality, poisoning is a rare occurrence . Plant parts are extremely bitter, making deliberate ingestion unlikely even by small children. The plant contains hallucinogenic alkaloids, and consumption is most often linked to those looking for a mind-altering experience.

A bit of folklore: the name Jimson weed is said to have originated from the presence of a similar species in Jamestown, Virginia. The name "Jamestown" was corrupted to "Jimson" over time. Early colonists were said to exhibit strange behavior after consuming it when other foods were unavailable. Native peoples of the Southwest use datura in puberty and other ceremonies.

I remember this unbelievably beautiful plant from earliest childhood. I've always been fascinated with its huge white flowers and its spicy-sweet scent. At some point a friend gave me one, and it's been in my garden ever since.

If you are trying to encourage a natural look in your managed landscape, I encourage you to put sacred datura at the top of your plant list.



Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated January 25, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to Maricopa-hort@ag.arizona.edu 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092